Learning and growing: Laura Lentz on the rush of a great conference

The Maryland-based principal with Culinary Advisors says attending industry events to meet with colleagues and friends is crucial to keep developing professionally and personally

It’s conference season. I am, like many of you I’m sure, buzzing from a great Camp FCSI in Austin followed by a great Critical Issues Conference put on by SHFM in NYC. So, when I was asked if I’d put together an article a couple of weeks back, all I could think about was how a conference can help shape me into being and staying a foodservice consultant.  

What’s great about industry conferences is that there is something for everyone. If you’re a beginner, it’s a great chance to attend a session or tour a booth and learn something you didn’t know. If you’re a seasoned veteran, you’re still learning and it’s also a great chance to connect with peers, catch up and talk about what you’re experiencing. And in more recent years, for me, it’s a critical way to finding a path forward with some of the less settled areas of foodservice design.  

I’ve come to realize that if you want to be set trends instead of follow them, you’ve got to be around cutting edge people who help to challenge you and who you can challenge. I don’t want to try every fad that’s out there but a trend that’s lasted and is working for people – that’s where I want to be.

Finding solutions

From my experience in recent years, it’s critical to be talking to fellow consultants, clients, and manufacturers to help figure out the best solutions that are sticking and solving problems. 

For me this is particularly true for workplace and healthcare foodservice segments because I think these are still working through post-Covid solutions. It also means that I spend a lot of time considering what would really work for my particular clients based on what I’ve heard. And taking what you hear about the successes of other projects and assembling it into a solution that works for your particular client also requires some work. It takes commitment, practice and effort.

I love the relationships with manufacturers; they can help to educate you, resolve issues and are a ton of fun. I’m convicted that picking up the phone and calling folks is an important part of what we do because it builds relationships.

But I’ll be honest, in recent years I’ve fallen into a trap of not being as diligent to attend industry exhibits at conferences. I think I’ve struggled to think that if I’m doing lunch and learns and reading articles that I already know everything and there is nothing to be offered. Let me tell you how wrong I’ve found I was.  

Make time, make it work

If you’re just starting out, you’ve got a lot to learn and hearing it multiple times will be critical for you to have the memory recall you need to navigate conversations with clients. Get to every single booth you can, meet people, get names and contacts and soak it all up.  

But for the more seasoned, I was delighted at how a number of manufacturers were sharing all of the solutions they are working on and developing and how new products are solving problems. I had several great conversations and the opportunity for in-person discussions that can be harder to arrange than they used to be. My takeaway is that I will arrange more of these types of conversations on the heels of a conference and really work to get business done while I’m connecting.

In conclusion, I urge everyone to make time for conferences, take any opportunity you are given to attend and keep an eye and ear out for the ones that offer the best educational sessions for your needs – get to the industry showcases and exhibits and make it work for you.

Laura Lentz FCSI is design principal with Culinary Advisors in Maryland and a Foodservice Consultant columnist.

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